Mindful Breathing and the Relaxation Response
Now that we know what breathing patterns bring us harm, let's bring our focus to what techniques will work on our behalf towards a healthier body and mind.
If shallow breathing is harmful, then it follows that deepening the breath is beneficial. The reason why has been well documented by science. Researchers out of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Massachusetts, associated with Harvard, have studied how deep breathing in various breath-based wellness practices, martial arts and disciplines such as meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, qi gong and the like, induces the all-powerful relaxation response. It is this relaxation response that plays such a pivotal role in our well-being.
Dr. Herbert Benson defines the relaxation response as “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.” He found that when you are in this healing state of relaxation you enjoy the following physical benefits: slower heartbeat and muscle relaxation, slower breathing, decreases in blood pressure and even an increase in a signaling molecule called nitric oxide that dilates arteries!
His point is that working from this state of self-induced physical relaxation, one is better able to translate it into emotional relaxation, calming one’s reactions to stressful situations and responding from a more centered state of mind.
Dr. Kelly Brogan, a practicing psychiatrist with a degree in cognitive neuroscience from MIT as well as an MD from Weill Cornell Medical College, expounds on this topic in her engrossing, seminal book A Mind of Your Own: The Truth about Depression and how Women can Heal their Bodies and Reclaim their Lives, “One of the reasons why deep breathing is so effective is that it triggers a parasympathetic nerve response rather than a sympathetic nerve response. When you perceive stress, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action, resulting in surges of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, can trigger a relaxation response. Deep breathing is a way of quickly flipping the switch from high to low alert in seconds as your body calms down on many levels.”
So imagine for a moment, that there was a button you could push when you are stressed, upset or otherwise riled up, that would allow you to calm down and handle the situation from a state of relaxed awareness. That button is your breath, so use it wisely.
Exercise to Deepen Breath
- Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable, but mentally alert. Take a quick mental snapshot of not only how your body feels physically, but also the state of your mind: the speed of your thoughts, the content of your thoughts and any emotions or general mood that may be present for you.
- Inhale deeply through your nose, focusing on feeling the physical sensations of the breath: the lifting of the chest; the expansion, or opening, of the ribs; the diaphragm lifting and abdomen rising as your belly rounds outward, full of air.
- At the top of the inhale, when you feel as though your lungs are fully inflated, sip in a tiny bit more air.
- Slowly exhale out of the mouth to a count of 12, pushing all the air out of your lungs by the end of the exhale. Continue this for five more rounds.
- Halt all control of your breathing and take a moment to receive the effects of this simple breathwork. Again, take a mental snapshot of your body and inner mental landscape and notice if anything has changed.
Conscious Breath during Exercise
We can take the benefits of conscious deep breaths even further when we pair our breath with physical movement. Dr. Stapleton states, “Bringing awareness to your breathing enables you to expand your overall lung capacity. Keeping a steady flow of deep breaths going while you exercise will aerate the blood, helping to reduce the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles.”
There are even benefits to be had by consciously playing with the rhythm of one’s own breath, as Dr. Stapleton goes on to say, “By elongating the length of inhaling and exhaling breaths while in motion, the actual elasticity of the muscles increases.”
Dr. Brogan also highlights the health benefits of breath paired with movement in regards to the lymphatic system.
As a quick reminder, the lymphatic system is a key player when it comes to the immune system. Lymph is a clear fluid filled with immune cells that passively floats and coasts through a series of vessels in our bodies. It delivers nutrients, collects cellular waste and destroys pathogens.
Dr. Brogan explains, “The deeper you breathe, the more active your lymph system is. Unlike your circulatory system, which has a heart to pump blood, the lymphatic system has no integrated pump. It must rely on your breathing and physical movement to push lymphatic fluid around the body.”
So here we have an integral, disease-fighting system of the body that is entirely reliant on the ability of the individual to pair breath with movement.
It is precisely this concept of “moving meditations” that fuels the popularity of practices like yoga, qi gong, and other martial arts that purposefully pair the relaxation response from deep, conscious breathing with the healthful bodily mechanisms enhanced by physical exertion.
Ultimately your goal in breathing your way to wellness is all about inducing a state of relaxation for even a few moments of your day. In our fast paced world, this is truly a revolutionary act and requires a devoted level of discipline to maintain. The benefits of committing to such a practice however, whether it is sitting in stillness with your ever-deepening breath for a few moments before your morning shower or engaging in a moving meditation, are profound and far-reaching. And what we do today to nurture and care for ourselves will pay off in later life when we have fewer medical expenses, better relationships and emotional fortitude to deal with life’s highs and lows.
Check out next week’s blog on the many benefits of cultivating a consistent meditation practice and why it’s imperative to our health and even our gene expression.